Drones have captured headlines this week. The spectacular drone attack on Saudi Arabian oil facilities knocked out ~5% of daily oil supply. The Maharashtra government announced that it signed up with a global private firm to “use a logistics network of autonomous delivery drones to help transform emergency medicine and critical care”. The Economist, on its latest cover, highlighted that ‘flying taxis take off’ even as earlier this year, the Gatwick airport closed for a day and a half over “drone sighting”.
Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS), have become common in a wide variety of more beneficial, mundane and practical applications in agriculture, infrastructure asset maintenance and supervision, geological and property surveys, entertainment and a wide variety of upcoming fields. Management consultants routinely highlight the billions of dollars of new opportunity that this technology unleashes. The progress in battery technology (which allows the vehicle to be light enough to be propelled), improvement in communication, navigation and tracking technologies, and the development of unmanned traffic management (UTM) systems have contributed significantly to the proliferation of drones.
Over the last few years, India went from a complete ban on drones to a more nuanced policy of ‘No Permission, No Take-off’ (NPNT), which is to be coordinated using the Digital Sky portal and application, which is now under development. The eventual expectation of Digital Sky is that the NPNT process will be real-time, dynamic and online.
New technologies bring with them challenges of regulation. The key challenges facing regulators in the context of drones are privacy, safety and security. This means that policy-making inputs and control rest with a large number of governmental entities dealing with internal and external security, aviation and urban development authorities, and privacy and safety advocates.
This is not a new or a unique challenge. When automobiles first started to appear ~150 years ago, societies and governments grappled for a long time to come to terms with ‘autonomous’ vehicles that did not require animal power. Among the various laws that governed transportation using mechanical carriages were the (in)famous ‘Red Flag’ laws, both in the US and the UK. A sample law: “One of such persons, while any locomotive is in motion, shall precede such locomotive on foot by not less than sixty yards, and shall carry a red flag constantly to warn the riders and drivers of horses of the approach of such locomotives and shall signal the approach thereof when it shall be necessary to stop, and shall assist horses and carriages drawn by horses, passing the same.” It was more than two decades after the coming of Model-T that the system of signals, road customs, and signs began to resemble the ones that we are familiar with today.
Depending on weight of the drone and its payload, policies around the world require registration of the drone, its pilot, the organisation commissioning the usage and a specific approval of the time and path of the drone flight. The heavier the drone (and hence, the more the perceived ability to inflict damage), higher is the compliance required. However, how the burden of compliance is imposed requires making very careful and considered choices.
Minimise damage or maximise innovation: The fine line that policy makers tread, especially on technological innovations which could have large negative social impact, is to balance minimisation of chances of harm to society and flourishing of innovation by industry. Sometimes to minimise harm, especially when the enforcement of rules in a country is a challenge, regulations become so harsh that they make it difficult for anyone to access and deploy the new technology (a de facto ban), throttling genuine business and social applications.
Burden of safety on technology versus individual: An inherent assumption of rule-making is that they will be followed by all actors. However, those with nefarious intent may not be thwarted based on the expectation that they will be detected as they comply with regulations. Since, it is difficult to a priori judge on the intent of the operator using a new technology, regulators sometimes find it easier to pass on the compliance burden of safety on the regulation of technology crimping the potential for genuine players.
Process or outcome: The choices that rule-makers make are significantly influenced by whether they are judged on the process of rule-making (detailed, periodic, multi-stakeholder consultations, reviews and public comments, appropriate approvals, etc) or the outcome of policy (which requires say a certain number of drones to fly by the end of a given period). Outcome-oriented policies are largely found in the domain of mission-mode projects (say, housing, electricity and drinking water for all) and not when generic policies are drafted. As the example of automobiles shows, societies slowly relax rules using the processes of rule-making rather than mandating a certain number of cars on the road.
Permission versus intimation: It is important to define where responsibility of the State ends and that of an individual begins. The State can retain power of giving permission for usage of a new technology. After retaining the right to give permissions, does the State assume responsibility if anything were to go wrong? If so, this can make the position of a bureaucrat giving permission very risky. Alternatively, the State could merely ask to be informed when actions are taking place and shift the burden of responsibility on the individual who are held (civilly or criminally) liable if something goes awry.
There is no one right answer and the approach also changes over time as industry, regulations or comfort of society with a new technology evolves. Sometimes, the framing of a policy can be impacted by events and their social fall-out: hundreds of drones saving thousands of lives by sending blood and vaccines to remote areas can set a very different policy-making approach compared to drones which trigger regional or global unrest. While we have used the example of policy for drones here, these questions are relevant to policy-making for any new technology: from e-vehicles and e-commerce to artificial intelligence and social media influence. The onus falls on business to continue to engender society and regulators’ trust in the usefulness of technology.
Author of The Making of India. Views are personal.